book cover imageAfter the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance
by Kenneth Hamilton.
Oxford University Press (New York)
304 pp, $29.95, 2008

What if all classical recordings were destroyed tomorrow? Forget the obvious fact that such mass destruction could never be enforced outside the Khmer Rouge. Forget, also, the separate issue of how classical recordings are produced: whether they derive from billion-dollar corporations or from the musical equivalent of microbreweries. This issue has generated most of the recent tabloid verbiage about classical music’s future, verbiage which largely comprises rants that can be summed up as follows: “The sky is falling, classical recording is a racket, Herbert von Karajan was just a Nazi, every conductor before about 1983 was just a Nazi, money is evil, the big record companies are corporate pedophiles, the classical industry will collapse by next Tuesday at the latest, we’re all gonna dieeeeeeeeeeeeeee . . .” (Readers conversant with extreme global-warming alarmism may gain from such “musicologists” the curious impression of having heard it all before. Their doubts as to such jeremiads’ trustworthiness might well be increased at the news that the latest book-length collection of them—Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness—has now been pulped for its stunning falsehoods. Let’s hear it for copy-editing quality control.)

No, what matters here is not what old-fashioned Marxists would call “the means of production”, but the contingent nature of what is being produced. The truth is—and it is one of the most remarkable, yet least recollected, truths in musical history—that while jazz and the blues were more or less coeval with the recording process, classical music (if we want to call it that) survived without the recording process for centuries. What is more, we lack any hint that pre-1900 composers regretted this state of affairs, or that they craved the innate monumentality which recording media have now given their works. Most of Bach’s cantatas, most of Haydn’s symphonies, originally ended up being filed away after only a few performances. This could well be a crying shame; but then, as Thomas Sowell put it, “history is what happened, not what we wish had happened.” We have no right to expect that Bach and Haydn agonized greatly about their masterpieces’ brief shelf-life. They appear to have operated according to a fundamentally stoic attitude of “Them’s the breaks.” In this, Beethoven would have agreed with them. If Beethoven ever imagined a future where sound recording would be possible, he gave no sign of doing so. (He sought wider fame partly through piano transcriptions of his orchestral output, these transcriptions being mostly within amateurs’ talents.)

So “the past is another country,” indeed? Another continent, more like it. These thoughts, and others (such as: why, exactly, do we not applaud outstanding performances that we hear on disc?), are prompted by a revelatory analysis—supplied by Scotland’s Kenneth Hamilton—of musical interpretation. Rarely can any new musicological treatise have been so densely crammed with jaw-dropping insights, or so enjoyable a guide to an alien mindset, as this one. Hamilton, an excellent pianist himself, writes withcharm and, often, acidic wit. His field is not completely terra incognita; musical literates everywhere will have encountered most of the figures he discusses, from the early nineteenth century (Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Charles-Valentin Alkan, Liszt’s son-in-law Hans von Bülow, Beethoven’s protégé Carl Czerny) to the early twentieth (Rachmaninoff, Paderewski, Ferruccio Busoni, Percy Grainger). What Hamilton has done is rummage around in primary sources that have been too much neglected outright or else mangled by misleadingly selective quotation. His result—although a copy of its typescript was, weirdly enough, confiscated at an airport “for reasons of national security”—is a delightful relief-map of an antique land through which most of us will hitherto, at best, have stumbled in the dark.

The paradox has been noted before, but bears repeating: the average musician is these days far more knowledgeable about characteristic performance practices in the baroque era than about those of the 150-odd years (from Mozart up to and including Rachmaninoff) whence the standard modern concert repertoire, after all, predominantly comes. He may well be aware, for instance, that Handel’s operas included castrati; that trills in baroque music should usually start on the upper note; and that so-called trio sonatas actually included four instruments, the fourth doubling the keyboard’s bass line. But he is most unlikely to realize musical strategies that Romantic pianists took for granted: that these musicians would frequently precede the compositions on their programs with improvised warm-up passages (a habit named “preluding”); that they would, with comparable alacrity, connect compositions on their programs by equally improvised passages (the sober-sided Artur Schnabel, it is astounding to learn, behavedthus as a student); that they expected clapping, not merely at the end of a work, but between movements and, for that matter, whenever a pause presented opportunities for noises of approval; and that they would repeatedly play left-hand notes before right-hand notes, a technique known as “asynchronization.”

Licit musical reasons existed for some of these methods. Nineteenth-century pianos broke more readily beneath the strain of a turbulent performer’s hands than do their present-day counterparts. Therefore preluding—as a way of testing in advance what a specific instrument could manage—made eminent prudential sense. Other gambits were at least understandable: the modern notion of a concert as resembling a church service meant nothing to nineteenth-century audiences, most of whom regarded pianism by the likes of Liszt and his sparring partner Sigismond Thalberg in the same cheerily raucous spirit with which we would behold a wrestling match. “Silence is not what we artists want”, Beethoven affirmed (when already well advanced in deafness, poignantly enough): “we want applause.” Hamilton notes: “Nineteenth-century concert practice accepted, sometimes reluctantly, that the audience would give what amounted to a running commentary on the performance—if, that is, the performer was lucky enough to engage [its] attention at all.” Even Mendelssohn, a thoroughly prim figure by the standards of most of the wild and crazy guys depicted here, willingly improvised a complete slow introduction to his own showpiece Capriccio Brillante. As late as 1931 Rachmaninoff would abridge his Corelli Variations if he judged that his audience’s coughing indicated boredom.

Were there ever limits on nineteenth-century-trained pianists’ crowd-pleasing, text-defying eccentricity? Yes, there were, though this could barely be gathered from Hamilton’s accounts of Liszt’s generation, which seems to have countenanced almost any on-stage mass entertainment short of a public hanging. Critics repeatedly charged the once-famous Vladimir de Pachmann with exceeding all bounds of taste. Bernard Shaw sneered at Pachmann’s “well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin”; the New York Sun’s James G. Huneker derided Pachmann as “the Chopinzee”; London’s Musical Times in 1892 denounced Pachmann’s preluding (before the slow movement of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto) as “impertinence for which he deserved to be hissed.” Should we share in this censure? Not so fast. The fact that Pachmann’s résumé included theory lessons with Bruckner indicates, at the very least, considerable conscientiousness. Dying at eighty-four in 1933, Pachmann probably recorded too much during his last and most erratic years for the good of his prestige, and ruefully told one disciple: “Whenever you find a disc of mine, buy it and break it!.” An element of fishing for flattery doubtless underpinned this counsel, since some of his Chopin releases indicate—as do some of Paderewski’s—an unforced eloquence that helps explain his previously huge repute. Like many harmless gonzos he maintained a disconcerting taste for describing himself in the third person, as in his response to a hostess who said to him “I do hope you do not mind being alone”: “Madam,” he replied, “I am never alone, I am with Pachmann.”

Much nineteenth-century pianism aimed to resolve—or, at any rate, reduce to bearable levels—the essential conundrum of the piano’s very structure: that of a percussion instrument which, nevertheless, must give the illusion of a singing tone (the greatest performer being the most successful illusionist). Hence the preoccupation of every nineteenth-century-trained pianist (Mendelssohn possibly excepted) with the sustaining pedal. “The soul of the piano”, as Liszt’s younger rival Anton Rubinstein called that mechanism. Hence, too, much of asynchronization’s appeal among pianists until within living memory. Those few who discouraged asynchronization in tyros sometimes committed it when confronted with a microphone. Russian-born, English-resident pianist and teacher Mark Hambourg, whose book How to Play the Piano Hamilton credits with bearing “a wonderfully brusque and businesslike title . . . rather like ‘How to Achieve World Peace’,” condemned asynchronization in theory yet employed it several times in practice, as his rather numerous recordings show. Ditto Hambourg’s slightly older contemporary Josef Hofmann, who deplored asynchronization (“limping,” to use his preferred term) but resorted now and then to expressive “limping” himself.

Hamilton is thoroughly and understandably scathing about drab twenty-first-century pianistic moeurs when compared with the situation prevailing around 1900. There were giants in the earth in those days—whatever might have been Claudio Arrau’s motives, late in life, for dyspeptically mocking his pianistic forebears—and few will resent more than does this reviewer that technically flawless but deadly dull pianism which piano competitions, in particular, have lately disseminated. (China has usurped Russia’s former role as chief global exporter of pianistic whizz-kids with, in Raymond Chandler’s deathless phrase, “all the personality of a paper cup.”) Nowadays a Schnabel’s or an Alfred Cortot’s finger-slips would prevent either player from obtaining a recording contract anywhere this side of Outer Uzbekistan; and we would all be the poorer as a consequence, given both men’s brilliant musicianship at its best. Vladimir Horowitz so dreaded making Schnabel- or Cortot-type mistakes that he slyly simplified Liszt’s Feux Follets (this piece’s rigors are aggravated today by hefty key action unimaginable on nineteenth-century instruments), and meticulous editing of Horowitz’s 1965 “live” recording at Carnegie Hall removed every trace of the errata so readily audible to the concert’s original hearers. On the other hand, calling the desire for accuracy a “recent psychosis,” as Hamilton does, is hardly fair: such a desire, once whetted, can only with difficulty be slaked. Can anybody, in the epoch of CD ultra-precision, altogether slake it? One wonders.

To the question implied by Hamilton’s prodigious research—namely, “Would we want to be transported back to nineteenth-century practices and, above all, back to nineteenth-century audience attitudes?”—most readers of Hamilton will answer with a decided, if regretful, no. We who are spooked by a solitary cell-phone ringing in mid-recital are unlikely to welcome an anarchic environment where a temperamental artist could fling his piano stool into the stalls (Bülow apparently pioneered this form of self-expression), or where chatter in the peanut gallery threatened to drown out the doings on the platform, or where the written music—as distinct from, for example, Liszt’s umpteenth extemporized variations on same—carried no discernible sanction whatever. In any case, Liszt and his contemporaries (it should never be forgotten) themselves composed. Expecting comparable creative efforts from students at the average modern piano faculty would empty it quicker than an Ebola virus.

Perhaps the years between the wars got the mixture of spontaneity and authority more or less perfect. During that period, the finest pianists displayed abundant individual flamboyance (a connoisseur can easily distinguish, say, Hambourg’s pile-driving approach on records from Rachmaninoff’s sinuosity), while possessing sufficient etiquette to ensure that, somewhere underneath this individualism, the composer can be perceived. Hamilton, one suspects, would in his heart of hearts agree with this. His last pages furnish nothing more incendiary than the following perfectly reasonable observation: “The later performance history of music . . . [offers] viable options to present and future players, rather than simply constituting a sad catalog of corruption.” Sadly, those who most need this message are those least likely to discover it: cookie-cutter pianists who never read outside the syllabus. For every Daniel Barenboim in our midst, there are thousands of keyboard airheads literally incapable of thinking past the next contest, photo shoot, or airport departure lounge.

R. J. Stove, an organist in Melbourne, Australia, is the author of A Student’s Guide to Music History (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware).